First Two Pages of Frankenstein (The National) – music review

The National’s ninth studio album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, derives its title from a moment deep in singer Matt Berninger’s bout with writer’s block. To break the lock, he will often grab a book off the shelf just to get some words in his head. In this case, the first two pages of Frankenstein opened back up his creative flow. This breakthrough continued after the band hit the road last year and that unity on stage helped finalize the songs you hear today.

Their last record, I Am Easy To Find (2019) featured an array of female vocalists, so collaboration for The National is not new but First Two Pages ups the ante with an A list of music credits that include Sufjan Stevens, Phoebe Bridgers, and Taylor Swift all lending their vocals. These collaborations bring a fresh energy and diversity to the album. From the opening piano-led track, “Once Upon A Poolside,” that features Stevens voice in the backdrop, First Two Pages establishes the current National melancholic atmosphere. Matt Berninger’s vocals are as powerful and expressive as ever, and the addition of Stevens’ voice frames the track nicely.

The two songs featuring Bridgers in the background, “This Isn’t Helping” and “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend,” are the best complement to Berninger’s voice. I would have liked to hear her a bit more but both songs are better with her in the background. “The Alcott” is a duet with Taylor Swift that finds the two inhabiting the roles of a couple attempting to resurrect a troubled relationship. You can hear the history of the couple in the lyrics, as both singers perfectly nail the emotion and the song leaves you with hope that the relationship will work this time as they both independently sing “Back in love with you.”

The rest of First Two Pages Of Frankenstein really falls in line with what The National does best; mid-tempo numbers with relatable personal lyrics. “Tropic Morning News” is a standout track that showcases The National’s ability to craft a catchy, upbeat tune while still maintaining their trademark melancholy. The driving guitar and rhythmic drumbeat create a sense of urgency, while Berninger’s lyrics touch on trying to connect with someone when the noise of the world is drowning out any potential for conversation. Another track I liked is “Eucalyptus,” which is about a couple splitting up their possessions after a breakup. Its sometimes is the little things that define the relationship here as Berninger asks the questions “What about the rainbow eucalyptus? What about the instruments? What about the Cowboy Junkies? What about the Afghan Whigs?”

First Two Pages of Frankenstein is another engaging and introspective album that again showcases The National’s ability to explore complex themes and emotions through their music. Is it overall a safe sounding album? I think that answer is yes, but the familiar vibe here succeeds for me as the songs grow with each new listen. The collaborations really do work well with the band’s sound, and the result is an album that still comes off fresh. Fans of The National’s previous work will not be disappointed, and the album is sure to win the band new fans as well.

Christopher Anthony
For more of Christopher Anthony’s music reviews, check out The Fire Note

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